Art by Committee

Why did Wright keep the records of something he planned to erase?

If you had created something, a piece of art, for example, that was subsequently altered by others in ways that you disapproved, would you want that object preserved? That is the question that Wright historians should ask about extant American System-Built Homes (ASBH). Would Wright want the homes to stand? He had produced drawings and specification of which he was proud and protective, but by the time Wright sued to cancel the contract with his partner-developer The Richards Company, he was convinced that few (if any) of the ASB homes were being built to specification, and we can confirm that he was right. Our Elizabeth Murphy House is “out of spec” in many ways. While she carries Wright’s DNA, her details were altered by a parade of mutators. And when we point out one of these mutations to friends or tour-goers, we like to glibly joke that, “Wright would have torn this place down…” (Read more about that in “Caring for the Forsaken

However, while history shows Wright orphaning the ASB homes themselves, his ASBH plans and specifications – including the drawings for this model A203 – have been lovingly protected for over a century. These records were first stashed away in boxes at Taliesin at Wright’s instruction, then kept by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and now, are safely under lock and key at Columbia University’s Avery Library.

Curiously, among the three main players in the American System-Built Homes — Frank Lloyd Wright, Arthur L. Richards and Russell (Barr) Williamson — only Wright kept any records. Why?

It turns out that Richards didn’t preserve his version of the history as a matter of legal obligation. When the Dane County Circuit Court ruled against him on February 25th, 1918, he was ordered to:

“deliver to the plaintiff (Wright) all the original sketches, designs, plans, specifications and perspective drawings by the plaintive and furnished to or deliver to [The Richards Company] and all construction details of all such drawings and all original perspectives and drawings rendered in ink or in water colors and reproductions in any form whatever of any and all of said enumerated articles.”1

– Dane County Circuit Court case files

This priceless bundle of drawings, articles and instructions is the same bundle that Wright took care to store and that survives today at the Avery.

And Williamson’s censorship of his own significant ASB contributions is a mystery unto itself, deserving deep study as a major theme in my book “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Forgotten House.”

But that Wright saved a trove of records is telling. He was proud of his ASBH ideas. He was proud the model designs themselves, the underpinning details that made them affordable and beautiful, and the system of construction that would enable scale and quality.

So Wright’s plans for these things deserved to be saved for posterity and study even if he would never acknowledge the objects, which stand now as record of art tainted by committee.

Image used with permission: American System-Built (Ready-Cut) houses for The Richards Company, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives: architectural drawings, ca. 1885–1959. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York) 1506.298

About this blog: The Elizabeth Murphy House is a 103 year-old American System-Built Home and the protagonist in the book “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Forgotten House.” (What readers are saying.)

(1) Frank Lloyd Wright v. The Richards Company, a Wis corp. and The Richards Company a Delaware Corporation, Exhibit 2: Correspondence between Frank Lloyd Wright and Emerson Ela, Dane County Circuit Court Case Files, Dane Series 109, Box 386, Wisconsin Historical Society.

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